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Shanghai delivery worker's 'yuan millionaire' claim sparks heated debate amid China's bleak jobs outlook

Claims by a food delivery worker in Shanghai that he made more than 1 million yuan (US$140,343) in three years, a story widely reported by state media and debated on social media, has offered hope to the unemployed amid China's sputtering economic recovery and bleak job market outlook.

Chen Si, a 26-year-old from the central province of Jiangxi, suggested in a series of videos posted on Douyin, the Chinese sibling of ByteDance's TikTok, that he made a total of 1.02 million yuan from three years of delivering meals in the Chinese financial hub.

In one video, Chen, wearing his Meituan courier uniform, said his failed restaurant business in his home province left him with a debt of 800,000 yuan. This prompted him to come to Shanghai where he landed a food courier gig to help pay off his debts.

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"I work 18 hours every day ... worked over 1,000 days in three years, barely taking leave," Chen said, adding that he has paid off all his debt.

Chen's videos were highlighted by Chinese state media, sparking heated online debate across the country, where the average monthly wage of people employed by private firms in cities was only 5,436 yuan in 2022, according to data compiled by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

While some have endorsed Chen's diligence, many questioned whether he was telling the truth. Based on Chen's claims, he would need to earn an average of 28,000 yuan each month, delivering an average of 107 orders everyday consistently over a span of 1,000 days.

One food delivery rider surnamed Yang, who worked for Meituan in Beijing for five years, told the South China Morning Post that he averaged between 40 and 50 orders a day, earning more than 10,000 yuan a month, by putting in a minimum of 12 hours per day.

While his best performance was delivering 108 orders in one day, according to a screenshot of the Meituan ranking he shared with the Post, Yang said it would be almost impossible for anyone to maintain that pace for more than 1,000 days in a row.

A food delivery courier for Meituan in Beijing, on September 1, 2023. Photo: Simon Song alt=A food delivery courier for Meituan in Beijing, on September 1, 2023. Photo: Simon Song>

Online job listings published by a Shanghai-based recruitment agency show salaries of between 9,000 yuan and 15,000 yuan for food delivery riders in the city, with the average daily order rate being between 40 and 70.

Meituan did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

In interviews with state media, Chen said that his fitness "based on practising martial arts when he was young", coupled with a dose of good luck, helped him achieve the result.

He told the Hunan-based newspaper Xiaoxiang Chenbao that he wakes at 5:50am daily and works until midnight, and that he hardly took any time off, even during the Lunar New Year festival when most workers stop work to celebrate with their families.

The inspirational story of a self-made millionaire comes as China is being challenged by an uneven economic recovery that has seen lay-offs across a wide range of industries, with new graduates facing a bleak job market.

After the youth unemployment rate hit a record high of 21.3 per cent last June, authorities stopped releasing the data, citing a need to reassess the calculation methodology.

When the reporting recently resumed, the NBS figures pegged the unemployment rate for the 16 to 24 year old age bracket at 14.9 per cent for last December, but the number excluded students still in school. Overall, China's urban unemployment rate was 5.1 per cent in December.

Food delivery couriers like Chen, as well as ride-share drivers and parcel couriers, make up China's army of flexible employment workers, which numbered more than 200 million at the end of 2021.

Starting early 2023, internet platforms like Meituan and ride-sharing service Didi Chuxing began to emerge from years of strict oversight by Beijing, but now face the prospect of a challenging economic environment. In a reversal of policy, Beijing is now openly praising the role of such platforms in bolstering growth and creating jobs.

However, compared with full-time employment, gig workers face job insecurity and a lack of benefits.

"I don't want people to follow my work style, as it is not suitable for everyone. I also don't want people to think delivering meals is a good job just because of how much I've made," Chen said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2024 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2024. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.